It is not an understatement to say that the career of Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard is on an extreme downward trajectory. It seems to have been trending as such for a few years now, ever since he left his bat on his shoulder against the San Francisco Giants in the 2010 NLCS. While the Big Piece has been a staple of Phillies’ lineup at the cleanup position, Howard has hardly produced cleanup numbers recently and has left fans frustrated.
Such frustration stems from a myriad of issues. The underlying problem that seeps through the numbers and tugs at the soul of every Phillies fan, however, is the fact that Ryan Howard has become the complete antithesis of what he was in his early years. This is a result of his late call-up to the major leagues.
Howard broke records working his way through the Phillies minor league system. Rightfully so, prospects raved about not only his power, but also his ability to hit to both sides of the field, his surprisingly nimble defense for his size, the confidence with which he approached the plate and his hitting for average.
He was the fastest player in major league history to hit his 100th and 200th home run. Unfortunately, he spent his early 20s blocked by Jim Thome. In an age where stars are made at younger and younger ages (Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Chris Sale, Giancarlo Stanton, etc.), fans were justifiably excited to see their homegrown star win Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player in his first two seasons. Expecting progression beyond his first two seasons into his seemingly unlimited prime, fans overlooked the fact that those first two years were his prime.
Howard, who was already 25 years of age when he won Rookie of the Year, entered the majors at his peak performance level, and he could only decline from there. Beginning in the summer of 2009, his average began to drop, his power began to diminish and as a means of attempting to regain his stroke, became more of a pull hitter… where he would hit balls straight into teams’ infield shift.
How could fans forget his performance in Game 4 of the 2009 NLDS against the Colorado Rockies. Bottom of the 9th inning, down by two with two outs and an unhittable Huston Street on the mound. All Howard had to say was ‘Get me to the plate, boys.’ Not only did he have the confidence that he could save the day, he produced a game-tying double and proved his moxy. The fans’ confidence swelled with his, but died quickly when their seasons ended with him at the plate in the two subsequent years. No longer does he inspire confidence from fans when at the plate with the game on the line.
Howard’s early success coupled with the massive contract that has become an albatross hanging around his neck had fans expecting not only the status quo from him, but further improvement the same way fans expect progression from Trout and Harper today. Instead, fans were treated to a steady decline because of his age, injuries and natural regression.
Will the big man see a late-career renaissance in 2014? Possible, but unlikely. What the majors will likely see, however, is local hero Mike Trout and division rival Bryce Harper continue their upward ascendance the way Phillies fans hoped Howard would. Talk about frustrating.